There’s no doubt that Conor McGregor’s stock took a serious hit on Saturday night at UFC 257. The ‘Notorious’ Irishman has molded himself into one of combat sports’ biggest superstars (if not the biggest). And, in part, that sale-ability has been built around an aura of strength.
It’s not like fans have never seen McGregor lose before. They’ve even seen him catch the wrong end of a pure standup battle, in his lone foray into boxing. However, despite those losses, a mystique – perhaps buoyed by inactivity – always remained.
In the minds of his legion of fans, nobody – in MMA at least – could stand and trade with McGregor without getting seriously hurt. Even Nate Diaz, in his win over McGregor, exited that first round bloody and busted up. The former double-champ was never actually unbreakable, or even unbeatable, but the confidence he projected made him seem that way. And a fanbase that largely only ever showed up to watch him fight tended to be easily swayed by spin.
That’s going to be a much tougher sell now. Moreso than any opponent before, even including Khabib Nurmagomedov in his largely dominating performance over the SBG Ireland talent, Dustin Poirier put the Conor McGregor show on ice. That last image of McGregor, bloodied and barely conscious – lying on the mat as though waking from some miserable nightmare – is going to have a lasting impact. Especially coming at the hands of someone he handled so easily years ago.
And the immediate implications are already obvious. McGregor has suggested that his loss just cost him a boxing match with Manny Pacquiao that was “as good as done” before UFC 257. While Dana White, who had been banging the drum for Khabib vs. McGregor 2 for years, was clearly hoping that a McGregor win would catapult that fight into reality. Instead, it seems more likely than ever that White will be announcing Khabib’s official retirement shortly.
If boxing and MMA history has taught us anything, however, it’s that losing – even badly – is rarely the death sentence it feels like in the moment. Even with the damage done, today Conor McGregor likely outsells every other fighter in MMA (with the possible exception of a now-retired Nurmagomedov). And, assuming this doesn’t start a landslide of disastrously bad fight results for the Dublin native, a few months and a win will likely right the ship and put him back to something approaching peak drawing power.
Not that examples of this aren’t easy to find, but a 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao still proved to be boxing’s best draw of 2019—with back-to-back PPVs clocking in at 400,000 & 500,000 buys. His record setting fight against Floyd Mayweather came just three years (and only three fights) after getting knocked out cold by Juan Manuel Marquez. Even Oscar De La Hoya’s late career boxing match against Ricardo Mayorga reportedly pulled in somewhere near a million buys.
Unfathomably, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. combined their efforts to draw in 1.6 million PPV buys in 2020. And that’s for a boxing match between totally washed 50-year-olds that was sold, upfront, as merely a hard sparring session. For most athletes in the fight game, once they grab a hold of superstardom their chance to cash in on fan interest never really fades.
All that said, it is a notably more difficult ticket to ride in mixed martial arts. With promotions setting the matchmaking, and fighters largely out of the drivers seat as to who they fight and when, MMA has a tendency to grind its former big draws out of the public interest.
Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were once both easily bankable marquee names inside the cage. In 2018, their long awaited grudge match brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of just 40,000 customers on PPV. By the time Anderson Silva’s UFC career came to a close, he was working a co-main event slot to Rose Namajunas & Jessica Andrade—who brought in just 110,000 buys for their efforts. Even fighting Israel Adesanya as the headliner of UFC 234 didn’t crack 200k.
But, for Silva, Ortiz, and Liddell, those numbers were the results of long and unmistakable slides, and little in the way of decided course correction. Losses in batches. Not just a bad day at the office here and there, but years long periods where they didn’t just get beat, they got beat badly. Ortiz may have turned his luck around heading into his Liddell bout, but it turns out a Bellator run doesn’t grab fans they way he and Golden Boy Promotions might have hoped.
And after all, this still feels very much like a world where Brock Lesnar could step back into the Octagon and have fans salivating to wonder how he’d stack up against Stipe Miocic or Jon Jones.
Given his financial stability, seemingly largely built off a booming liquor business, McGregor seems unlikely to find himself forced into the same matchmaking grinder that’s chewed up other notables. Whether it’s 4 months from now, or a year, or even three, when he returns it will likely be against an opponent made to do one of two things: sell big, or get him a highlight reel win.
Losing to Dustin Poirier undoubtedly hurt, but memories are short and options are plentiful for the superstars of combat sports who know how to play the game of hype and marketing. Something McGregor has always done better than anyone else in MMA.